One of the early critics of the Melville Revival, British author E.M. Forster, remarked in 1927: "Moby-Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem." Yet he saw as "the essential" in the book "its prophetic song," which flows "like an undercurrent" beneath the surface action and morality.
Editors Bryant and Springer suggest perception is a central theme, the difficulty of seeing and understanding, which makes deep reality hard to discover and truth hard to pin down. Ahab explains that, like all things, the evil whale wears a disguise: "All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks" — and Ahab is determined to "strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside, except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall" (Ch. 36, "The Quarter-Deck"). This theme pervades the novel, perhaps never so emphatically as in "The Doubloon" (Ch. 99), where each crewmember perceives the coin in a way shaped by his own personality. Later, the American edition has Ahab "discover no sign" (Ch. 133) of the whale when he is staring into the deep. In fact, Moby Dick is then swimming up at him. In the British edition, Melville changed the word "discover" to "perceive." And with good reason, for "discovery" means finding what is already there, but "perceiving," or better still, perception is "a matter of shaping what exists by the way in which we see it." The point is not that Ahab would discover the whale as an object, but that he would perceive it as a symbol of his making.
Melville biographer Delbanco cites race as an example of this search for truth beneath surface differences. All races are represented among the crew members of the Pequod. Although Ishmael initially is afraid of Queequeg as a tattooed cannibal, he soon decides "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. While it may be rare for a mid-nineteenth century American book to feature black characters in a non-slavery context, slavery is frequently mentioned. The theme of race is primarily carried by Pip, the diminutive black cabin boy. When Pip has almost drowned, Ahab, genuinely touched by Pip's suffering, questions him gently, Pip "can only parrot the language of an advertisement for the return of a fugitive slave: 'Pip! Reward for Pip!'".
Yet Melville does not offer easy solutions. Ishmael and Queequeg's sensual friendship initiates a kind of racial harmony that is shattered when the crew's dancing erupts into racial conflict in "Midnight, Forecastle" (Ch. 40). Fifty chapters later, Pip suffers mental disintegration after he is reminded that as a slave he would be worth less money than a whale. Commodified and brutalized, "Pip becomes the ship's conscience." His views of property are another example of wrestling with moral choice. In Chapter 89, Ishamel expounds the concept of the fast-fish and the loose-fish, which gives right of ownership to those who take possession of an abandoned fish or ship, and observes that the British Empire took possession of native American lands in colonial times in just the way that whalers take possession of an unclaimed whale.